DALLAS — It was all so unfamiliar. After 111 straight wins, the Connecticut Huskies teetered on the edge of uncertainty, so much around them strange and unprecedented, nothing more so than the scoreboard, which wouldn’t tilt in their favor. Even the crowd noise was unfamiliar — a combination of awe and mighty roars for Mississippi State, which simply refused to concede U-Conn.’s superiority, and insisted on taking this game to a heart-clutching, collar-tightening, cottonmouth of an overtime finish — and then won it at the buzzer, 66-64, on a shot from the smallest player on the court. Which was the strangest thing of all.
“We went in the locker room and experienced some of the things other kids on other teams have experienced against us,” U-Conn. Coach Geno Auriemma said afterward. “The excitement that was in Mississippi State’s locker room, we’ve been there. We’ve been there lots of times. We experienced that probably more times than normal. Today they deserved to win, they beat us. We had our chances to win but they beat us.”
The number “60” had sat pasted up on a mirror in Mississippi State’s weight room all season. It was the margin the Bulldogs had lost by a year earlier to Connecticut in the Sweet 16. It had stuck in their minds, the embarrassment of it, their timidity in the face of a dynasty, and they were determined to redeem themselves. “It’s personal,” Coach Vic Schaefer had told them.
But he had also urged them to stay in the moment, forget the overwhelming odds, and instead do the small things right. “Win the minute, win the hour, win the day,” he instructed.
The result was a stunning instant classic, a riveting NCAA Final Four game that absolutely no one foresaw. In which the two teams were hardly separated by more than a point or two throughout the second half, which ended, fittingly for the Bulldogs, tied at 60. And the overtime ended with the most stunning shot of this or many seasons, a veritable dream sequence. In the final timeout with slightly more than 12 seconds left on the clock, Schaefer turned to his 5-foot-5 point guard, Morgan William, and said, “Mo, you’re about to win the game. We want the ball in your hands. Just get a bucket.”
William took a pass from Dominique Dillingham, made a few shifty dribbles, and then drove hard at the heart of the U-Conn. defense. “Time was just ticking,” she said. And then she suddenly pulled up, and gently dropped a 15-foot jumper right through the net at the buzzer to defeat the Huskies, and let loose pandemonium.
“I got space, and jumped up, and made the shot, and I was in shock. I’m still in shock,” she said.
The Huskies had not lost a game since Nov. 17, 2014, when they lost, 88-86, in overtime to Stanford. It had been said that they were so dominant, everyone else was playing for second place. As William’s shot fluttered the net, Auriemma stood, hands on hips, and smiled, oddly unsurprised and accepting. “The kid made a great play,” he said. “. . . Look, nobody’s won more than we won. I know losing. I know how to appreciate when other people win.” He added, “Look, I knew this was coming at this point. I’m just shocked it took this long to get here.”
Still, it was hard to grasp that their epic run, which had encompassed four straight national championships, was done. And that it had been ended by this particular opponent. The Huskies had three all-Americans on the floor, the Bulldogs had none. The Huskies were appearing in their 10th straight Final Four, the Bulldogs their first. But as Schaefer said, “If you don’t know what’s in somebody’s breastplate, you better be careful about evaluating. That’s what these kids have, they have heart.”
They also had some advantages that went all but unnoticed in the lead-up to the game. They were actually the more veteran team, with four seniors and four juniors. U-Conn. had lost a trio of senior greats to last year’s WNBA draft and had predominately underclassmen on the floor. Also, the Bulldogs had more size, and the motivation of revenge.
The Bulldogs announced their intention to compete with U-Conn. this time around from the opening seconds. They crashed on every pass the Huskies attempted with arm waving, aiming to disrupt what Schaefer called their “pretty ball.” The Bulldogs ran out to a gasp-inducing 29-13 lead. “They started the game obviously with an intensity and they came out and made a push, fast,” the Huskies’ Kia Nurse said.
Schaefer’s foot stamps could be heard all over the arena, and his body English on the sideline was that of a spinning top. The Bulldogs were fleet, unnervingly quick off the dribble, and totally unafraid. It was U-Conn., strangely, for all of its accomplishments, that looked rattled. They missed free throws, they missed open shots, they gave up rebounds. All in all, it was a very different beginning for the Bulldogs, who had trailed 32-4 after the first quarter a year ago.
They were clearly a different, more hardened and mature team, led by the magnificent William, whose 41 points against Baylor had gotten them to the Final Four in the first place. And who has staked a claim as the best, most commanding player in the entire tournament. As Schaefer said of her, “We probably need to remeasure her because she ain’t the five in the second part of that.”
All week, Schaefer and his team had played the role of the humble, aw-shucks have-nots, just lucky to be in the Final Four. “If we win, we’re in the stands kissing babies and mamas,” Schaefer had said. “I call my team the people’s team. They want to hug ‘em and give ‘em a dozen cookies.”
But in their hearts, they also knew, as Schaefer said, “Make no mistake they earned the right to be here.”
Now they’ve earned the right to move into the national championship game, and into the record book.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.